Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Untouchable Teamster

My bank has an online retirement planner and I just ran the new numbers. It turns out we’re going to be fine! According to the program, Pam and I should be able to quit work, remodel the kitchen, tour Tuscany, kick back and enjoy life. All this will start happening in the year 2055, right after my ninety-eighth birthday (assuming the economy recovers.)

In the meantime, fortunately, the kind of work I do requires no physical strength or mechanical skills whatsoever, and very little sensory acuity. So I’ll be able to get
really, really old and stay employed. The main thing is just to keep moving my mouth. After a certain point, it will not matter what I’m saying; all the receivers will be turned off and only the transmitter will stay on. That’s what tenure is for.

One of my professors in graduate school was a sort of demented oracle. He sometimes lectured in a long stocking cap, forgot where his office was, and confused his favorite teaching assistant with an eighteenth-century New England divine. But he won the National Book Award. At the university, nobody noticed anything strange. He was about as inconspicuous as a gumball in a bag of marbles.

No question about it, professional academics are lucky to have the jobs we do. But by the same token, everyone else should be glad we are not out there in the world trying to do real work, at which we would suck. We would be a menace to the community.

I know what I’m talking about, because I used to be a blue collar worker myself. In 1976, I joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and clocked in as a Final Assembly Assistant in a window factory in San Leandro, California. My job qualifications consisted of being friends with Jane P. from freshman year, and her dad being the company president.

My parents had always taught me to
do my very best; that was all that they or God required. Unfortunately, the foreman at this factory required that I actually build sliding glass patio doors. (Do you have any idea how hard that is?) I was supposed to put in screws, attach these complicated lock assemblies, glue on pieces of vinyl weather stripping -- that sort of thing -- and get all this done at breakneck speed so as to finish my side of a door by the time a real worker finished his side. It was outrageous!

Floyd (that was the foreman’s name) had come from Salt Lake City and Mr. P. called him “the Mormon Foreman.” Floyd waited a couple of weeks before pointing out the blatantly obvious: I was never going to get the hang of this. He wanted to fire me, but I was untouchable, being Jane P.’s friend.

Floyd reassigned me to the warehouse. He gave me a quick lesson in how to drive a forklift and set me loose in there. I was supposed to move a bunch of pallets stacked with big boxes of patio screen doors. Getting right to it, I lined the thing up and ran the two prongs of the forklift directly through the first box -- literally impaling every screen door inside.

Once again, Floyd was personally inclined towards termination at that point in time. I imagined him going upstairs to see Mr. P. about this, and then Mr. P. saying,
“Look, Floyd, you know this little moron is my daughter’s friend; you can’t just fire his sorry college butt. So take him off that forklift and find something to occupy him safely for a few more weeks. Then he’ll go back to Santa Barbara and you won't see him again.”

Floyd advised me to never go near a forklift for the remainder of my natural life, and reassigned me to a walking-around job. He was pretty terse when he spoke to me, and you could tell he was holding back. There was more he wanted to say on the topic of this job and myself . . .

In my new assignment, I was supposed to walk around the warehouse and fill orders, piling windows on a big cart. One afternoon I discovered a tall tower of metal scaffolding blocking an aisle. The metal tower rose up about three stories to the ceiling, roughly the height of a jet airplane hangar.

I contemplated this looming structure for a moment, wondering how I might get behind it to access the product. Then I noticed the whole thing was on wheels.
“Aha!” I thought. “It is on wheels. Ergo, it can be moved . . .” (I was minoring in philosophy.) So I pushed hard against the metal tower, and behold, it moved . . .

It turned out that the metal tower was there for a distinct purpose: to support a ladder and a platform for a man to climb up and service these huge halogen lamps with electrical transformers that illuminated the factory floor.

When I pushed against the tower, it rolled and knocked out one of the lamps -- transformer and all -- and the whole thing came crashing to the floor and exploded like a bomb.

There was a deafening noise and some quite impressive electrical arcing and sparking up there in the ceiling between the metal tower and the bare wires now hanging down. Then the entire factory went dark. All the machines in the manufacturing and assembly bays stopped cold. Nobody could see their hand in front of their face. What followed was a certain amount of bedlam.

Somebody turned on a big flashlight. All the workers made their way in the direction of the crashing sound and the arcing and sparking. The first responder on the scene was Floyd. He shined the flashlight in my face and said, "

It was sort of like you might say "You?!" to a raccoon who has managed to dump over two tons of garbage. You can't quite imagine how the thing was done, but there's no question who did it and you've got him cornered. And then for a second you might wish you had a shotgun, which I'm glad Floyd did not have. It would have been a true crime of passion.

Then Floyd uttered a sentence that was a real marvel of syntactic virtuosity and imagination. I can’t do it justice here; I’m not a MIT linguistics professor. But what Floyd did -- on the spot -- was to compose a single sentence in the English language using the
F word as a verb, noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection and, finally, as a proper noun -- my new name. (And this guy was a Latter Day Saint.)

What happened next is that Mr. P. himself descended from Mt. Olympus to see what the ruckus was about. He spoke from the circle of darkness behind the flashlights. Mr. P. was not pleased, but for some reason he decided to address his remarks to Floyd, not me.

“Floyd!” Mr. P. shouted. “We are all very fortunate that this young man was not hurt or killed! OSHA was here last week and told us to put warning signs on these things, you now: ‘Do Not Move.’ So let this be a lesson to everyone.” [Translation: “Men, you all know I can’t fire this idiot -- he’s my daughter’s friend from college.”]

* * *
The company and I ran out the clock and parted ways. I never went back there, but a couple of summers later my friend Marty got me a job interview at a food warehouse in Minneapolis. I smiled and told the foreman I was an experienced warehouseman from California, and a member of the Teamsters Warehouse Division. I got the job and started working nights.

This warehouse in Minnesota was a massive building with a railroad dock on one side and a truck loading dock on the other. What I did was drive an electric tugger around, pulling a small trailer. I would go get the stuff, fill up the carts, and deliver them to the men who loaded the big trucks.

One night I was tugging around as usual and my thoughts wandered off in the direction of a girl who had dumped me for this guy who was collecting scrap metal to try and build a Corvette in his garage. Naturally, it slipped my mind to secure the tugger hitch to the trailer. It stayed on for awhile as I drove up and down the rows, stopping to pile on boxes of groceries. When the trailer was chock full, I made a fast U-turn at the end of the row by the rail dock.

The hitch popped loose. The tugger and myself kept on going in one direction, whereas the trailer sailed straight over the rail dock and crashed down on the tracks below, scattering broken boxes of soup, cereal, dog food, charcoal, soda, beer, and sanitary napkins.

The foreman showed up and -- you’re not going to believe this -- he uttered the
exact same sentence that Floyd had composed that day at the window factory in California. (Did these guys know each other? Is there some special class in foreman school called "Advanced Conjugation of the F word"?)

That job, too, came to an end and I headed for graduate school in New Haven, Connecticut. Thirty years have now passed. Fortunately, for myself and countless others who might otherwise have been placed in harm’s way, I’ve never done another day of manual labor in my life. That being said, I’ve got forty-six years to go. That’s a long time to keep moving your mouth nonstop, as a form of supported employment.

As a backup (just in case I have a stroke or something) I’ve held on to my Teamsters membership card and I may try to find Jane P. on Facebook.

* * *

A couple of years ago, my second daughter was applying to colleges and I took her to visit Yale over spring break. We went into Woolsey Hall when nobody was there. We walked up on the stage so I could show Alex where the Philharmonia performs and the spot where I got my PhD diploma. I was standing up there reminiscing, and then my reverie was broken by a shout from the back of the mezzanine balcony.

“Hey! What are youse doing down there?” It was an elderly man in a blue-gray maintenance uniform. “Stay where you are! I’m coming down there right now!” he yelled.

I froze in my tracks.
(Could this be Floyd?!) I had this sudden flash that I was just about to do something mechanically disastrous. Maybe my foot was resting on some kind of floor switch, and this would unhook the chandeliers and they would swing down and crash into the 1901 Newberry pipe organ . . .

Then the old man came close to us and there was kindness in his eyes. “Is this lovely young lady your daughter?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “I was just showing her around campus. Right here in Woolsey Hall is where I graduated, a couple of decades ago now.”

The old man’s eyes glistened. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “You got a camera? Let me take a picture of the two of youse.”

The man took our picture. We talked for awhile. He told us he'd worked at Yale for almost fifty years in building maintenance.

“I’ve seen ‘em all come and go,” he said. “I’m writing a book about it. All the people I’ve met and everything that happened -- it’s something, boy, I’ll tell you. I got stories nobody’s gonna believe.”

“Really?” I said. “I would love to read your manuscript.”

“Well, it ain’t done,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of pages, though. The thing is, there’s no time to write. Somebody around here has to do
real work.”

* * *